Financial Secrets in a Relationship

How much do you know about your partner’s financial status? How much does your partner know about yours? Are there things that you don’t tell him or her? Do both of you handle the finances together, or does it fall on just one of you? Are there accounts, assets, credit cards, loans or debts in your name that your partner doesn’t know about? If you have answered yes to any of these questions, you may be jeopardizing the long-term health of your relationship through the keeping of financial secrets, withholding important information from your partner, and overall avoidance of essential conversations to have with your partner. 

For those who entered into a relationship after a period of being a single adult, the transition from total financial autonomy to a system of shared responsibilities can be a difficult one. Similar to learning to share a living space with a partner, learning to share a common pool of money can be a difficult adjustment that requires compromise, communication, and patience. Different people can have very different priorities when it comes to spending and saving. One partner may think that an expensive meal is a frivolous waste of money, while the other might be used to sacrificing on other expenses in order to enjoy the occasional night out. You and your partner's family of origin and previous relationship with money plays a large role. One partner may have been raised to never spend on credit and save judiciously, while the other may be used to viewing credit cards as free money, to be paid off another time. Often, these differences will not reveal themselves until after the couple finds themselves in a shared financial arrangement. Thus it is crucial to begin talking about money early and often with your partner. The point is not to judge your partner or attempt to enforce your financial philosophy, but rather to come to an understanding about how each partner sees money, and how to work together towards common financial goals.

Withholding of information and dishonesty around money can arise when partners do not talk or work together with finances. One partner might fear being judged for specific purchases, so they open a new credit card without disclosing to their partner. They may justify this behavior in ways like, “I work for my money – it’s my business.” Or, “So what if I have a little credit card debt from before, I’ll take care of it eventually! My partner doesn’t need to know about it.” Whether or not you want to admit it, in any long-term relationship, your financial status is your partner’s business. This is especially true if you are cohabitating, and certainly if you have children. Debt, bad credit, or a delinquent account can have a negative impact on shared financial goals such as purchasing a home or sending a child to school, even if it only “belongs” to one partner. Worse, however, is that dishonesty around money can erode trust and make the other partner feel unsafe. Similar to infidelity, the feeling of violation that comes from knowing your partner lied to you about money can lead to problems with trust that remain long after the situation itself is resolved. Not to mention, just like your financial habits were impacted by your family of origin, this is your opportunity for you and your partner to model healthy communication and healthy habits around finances and spending/saving. 

Often times one partner will avoid having difficult discussions about money out of fear that it will lead to a fight. One partner may not want to disappoint the other or have to say “no” to a purchase. One partner may interpret the other’s silence on finances as tacit permission to continue spending. When the partner in charge of the finances becomes concerned and suddenly attempts to tighten the belt, to the other it may seem unnecessarily harsh or arbitrary, since there had been no prior indication that they were spending too much. Worse yet, the partner in charge of finances might not ever attempt to reign in the spending at all until serious financial issues such as spiraling debt, missed payments, or even bankruptcy arise. The longer a couple goes without talking about money, the more difficult and scary it can seem. 

At one point or another, any financial secrets you are withholding from your partner will come out. The longer secrets are kept, the more painful they can be once revealed. If you are holding any financial secrets from your partner, it is crucial to disclose as soon as possible. For those who want to prevent entering a place where you are keeping financial secrets from your partner. How do you, as a couple, avoid getting to a place where financial secrets are kept? The key is maintaining communication about financial matters. Stress, work, kids – all of these things can become distractions that prevent you and your partner from making financial discussions and financial transparency a priority. Here are a few tips to keeping the communication going:

1. Have “Money Dates”
On a recurring basis, have an assigned time to chat with your partner about finances. These “dates” can be short and informal, the important thing is both partners become used to the idea of talking about money openly and regularly. Avoid these conversations directly before bedtime or any time major distractions are present. Talk about what you’ve spent in the last few days, any upcoming major purchases, bills, debts, anything that will give you each a clearer picture of your financial situation. The key is to make these conversations light, with as little emotion as possible,  and not use them as a time to accuse or judge. Unpleasant exchanges will make one or both partners more hesitant to discuss financial matters, which can lead to secrets and dishonesty. 

2. Pay bills together

When cohabitating, it is important that both partners have a clear how much their total bills are, when they are due, and how to pay them. From a purely practical standpoint, this is important in case something happens to one partner leaving them unable to do this for any period of time. Additionally, knowing how much money is going out and coming in will make each partner more realistic and informed when it comes to spending and financial goals. Having both partners aware of how much the bills are can also help with finding ways to save money. Perhaps one partner just heard about a different cable service that is considerably cheaper than the one they are using now. If that partner has no part in paying the cable bill and/or doesn’t even know how much it is, that can be a major money saving opportunity lost!

3. Talk about financial goals
Do both partners want to buy a new home in the next two years? Is one thinking about going back to school? If couples do not talk about these goals, they can end up with wildly different priorities and expectations when it comes to spending and saving. Each partner may be more willing to sacrifice as needed if they know their partner’s goals. Talking about each other's financial goals and possibly merging them together can help keep each other accountable for doing what's necessary to reach these goals, as well as bring a couple closer together. It is an intimate thing having your partner know your goals, and to see your partner make actions and decisions that support these goals. 

4. Work with a financial planner 
Financial advisors are not cheap, but can be incredibly helpful, especially for couples who struggle with spending discipline. A financial planner can assist with setting up a realistic budget and making the most out of your savings. Just as importantly, having a third party aware of your finances and spending can reduce the temptation to “cheat” on budgets and/or spend outside of your means. For the more teach saavy couples, there are apps and software that mimic the style and approaches of a financial planner, for much less money. 

5. Focus on the future, not the past
Every one of us has at one time or another made mistakes with money. No one comes into a relationship as a blank slate, and that includes our history with and attitudes towards money. It is crucial that partners avoid temptation to judge each other’s past spending habits or overreact to current spending in a way that makes one partner reluctant to talk about money. Only when both partners feel free to talk about money can they work as a team towards common financial goals. 

Secrets are almost never helpful in a relationship, and that includes secrets about money. Even if they seem insignificant, secrets and lies around finances can amount to a serious violation that can cause harm to a relationship. The best way to prevent this from happening it to communicate openly and honestly with your partner about finances.